In my sixty-one years I have watched two disastrous presidencies implode. Nixon’s ended in an abrupt resignation following the Watergate scandal. Trump’s implosion is currently underway. It’s unclear how it’s going to end, but I’m reasonably confident he won’t survive a first term. It’s also unclear if our nation will too, at least in its form where branches of government keep a check on each other, which is already not happening.
Both Nixon’s and Trump’s presidencies qualify as national crises. Over the decades too much power has shifted toward the Executive and Congress has largely failed in its role to check the Executive’s power. Moreover, because the presidency has become so powerful, it attracts people drawn to power including people who should really not be president. Trump is the obvious poster child.
Given that about forty years spanned Nixon and Trump, it’s not too hard to predict that if nothing changes we’ll endure another disastrous presidency within a few decades.
One way of checking executive power has already been enacted: we passed the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to no more than two terms. Unfortunately, eight years gives presidents plenty of time to muck of the mechanics of government.
Time is revealing some flaws in our constitutional system. How do we fix things? These suggestions range from the idealistic and unlikely to the practical. They don’t necessarily guarantee another Nixon or Trump but make them less likely. Of course I am hardly the first one to suggest some of these solutions.
Elect a national attorney general. Many states do this already. It allows the people to decide who should impartially administer our laws. Being a constitutional office, this person could not be fired by the president but would take an oath to impartially administer the laws of the United States and would be in charge of managing the Justice Department. Because presidential election years are too consequential, I propose we elect an attorney general during midterm election years. The term would be for four years. Nixon and Trump demonstrate that you can’t count on a president to ensure that justice is fairly administered, particularly when the Justice Department has to look into the executive branch. The executive needs its hands constitutionally tied from managing the impartial administration of justice.
Get rid of the Electoral College. Presidents should be elected based on the popular vote. Of course, twice recently it didn’t happen. Had Al Gore and Hillary Clinton (who won the popular votes) become president, it’s unlikely that we would have invaded Iraq or had to worry about a lawless chief executive. Obviously a constitutional amendment is a steep climb given that it’s not in red states’ interests. Still, initiatives like the National Popular Vote would guarantee electoral votes to the popular vote winner nationwide by committing a state to assign all its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. These state laws are written to take effect only when enough states that comprise a majority of the electoral votes pass state laws. 12 states are currently onboard representing 172 electoral votes. We need states comprising 98 more electoral votes to make this a reality. No, it’s not unconstitutional because the constitution empowers states on how they wish to apportion their Electoral College votes. Most states have a winner take all system.
Require presidential candidates release their tax returns to get on the ballot. The constitutionality of some proposed state efforts has been questioned, which is probably while this has been introduced in a few state legislatures it hasn’t passed in any. However, Congress could pass such a law with no issues. Obviously, this has been a problem with Trump, who still claims the IRS is auditing his returns, which is false. Even if it were true, there is no law prohibiting a candidate from releasing his tax returns while being under audit.
Split the presidency into two positions: head of state and chief executive. Arguably the U.S. president has too much power, as he/she is both the head of state and the chief executive. As a practical matter, doing both competently is virtually impossible. Most other democracies split these duties. For example, Israel elects a president that represents the nation but has few powers, but can speak for the nation. Its prime minister is the chief executive. Great Britain has the Queen as its head of state. Presidents tend to be politicians, not statesmen. We need both, not one or the other. The head of state should be the moral voice of the country. They too could be elected in “off” years.
Decentralize first-use of nuclear weapons. It’s quite frightening that Donald Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons against any country he wants at any time, given his impulsive nature documented in Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear. In general, this is a dangerous power with massive implications for the nation. Congress should pass a law that prohibits the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States without the consent of Congress. Since such a decision might clue in potential adversaries, such a decision should require agreement by the president, Speaker of the House and both the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.
Reinstate the full Voting Rights Act. We need a law that explicitly overturns Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The case removed constrains on certain mostly southern states with a history of suppressing minority votes from enacting voter laws without a preclearance from the Justice Department. If we want to be non-discriminatory, make all states get preclearances. When a day after this decision, Alabama passed a Voter ID law you know this will be a problem for the foreseeable future.
Obviously I am against political or racial gerrymandering. I would like to see federal voting districts drawn impartially by federal judges, as is true in most republican forms of government. This effects the composition of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, so it’s off topic here. It has no effect on the national popular vote for president.